Fair Social Media Practice Principles Rules for Third-Party Engagement in Patient/Physician Social Networks

By John Mack

Social Media GlobeRecently, there’s been some discussion on Twitter and certain blogs about Sermo, the online physician community based in the U.S. When Sermo representative Thomas Rines (@tomrines) tweeted that “Sermo is an online community for US physicians. We provide our clients the ability to engage with the community” in a recent #MedDevice chat, he caused a “What? Wait!” doubletake (see “The Twitter Chat that Killed Sermo“).

It seems that many physicians — including some who are Sermo members — are not aware of Sermo’s business model, which is “Sermo is free to practicing physicians. Revenue is generated as healthcare institutions, financial services firms and government agencies purchase Sermo products to access this elite group of practitioners.”

Here were some responses to Rines’ tweet:

“Sounds like @SermoTeam is willing to host docs for free in order to gather info and push products for $”

“Do docs really know their conversations are being mined?”

“I doubt docs know exactly how Sermo mines their conversations.”

“Seems many topics of late come back to transparency & the motives for not being transparent.”

“May be a blog post to be had from this.”

The last two comments are relevant to why I am writing this blog post.

Before I proceed, you should know that Sermo is an advertising client of Pharma Marketing Network, which recently helped promote its services to the subscribers of Pharma Marketing News, many of whom may be interested in accessing Sermo’s  elite group of practitioners (see the ad sent out to subscribers here: “Get $3,000 of Market Research, FREE“). Daniel Palestrant, Founder and CEO of Sermo, has alos been a guest on the Pharma Marketing Talk show where he described how pharmaceutical companies can interact with Sermo members (listen to the podcast: “Pharma, Physicians, and Sermo: A Social Media Win-Win-Win!“).

I have also wondered how happy Sermo physicians are with its policy and whether or not a majority of them approve of it (see “Pfizer has a Gold Mine in Sermo!“).

Given all the publicity and transparency about Sermo’s business model, I am surprised to see comments like the ones above and this one by “SteveBMD,” author of blog “Thought Broadcast,” who said (see “Discussing social media with physicians on Sermo“):

“Sermo is not a physician-only community,” says SteveBMD.

“Sermo generates revenue by selling access to its site to ‘healthcare institutions, financial services firms and government agencies.’ See this link on their site: http://sermo.com/client/research/overview

“Unfortunately, this is not made clear to doctors when they sign up or participate. Instead, doctors are led to believe that this is like an ‘online doctors’ lounge.’ A better description would be a doctors lounge with insurance companies, pharma companies, market researchers, and government agencies peeking through the window.”

I am not a physician, so I cannot join Sermo and look at exactly what Sermo leads doctors to believe when and after they join. But I do know that Sermo has a 4,278 word “Terms of Use” document that it links to right on the Sign Up page (see below; click for an enlarged view).

This is a typical legal agreement that most of us see on Web sites, but automatically FAIL to read! If you want to become a member, you MUST agree. But what exactly are Sermo members agreeing to?

The Sermo Terms of Use document gets to the point of this blog in ITEM #7, which explains “Hotspots”, which are “visual indicators within the Site that enable Sermo and its clients to present opportunities (‘Opportunities’) for interaction with You.” Further down in ITEM #16, Sermo explains that “any material, information or other communication You transmit or post to the Site or third party site will be considered non-confidential and non-proprietary” and “Sermo and its designees will be free to use for any purpose, copy, disclose, sell, distribute, perform, incorporate and otherwise use the Communications and all data, images, sounds, text, and other things embodied therein for any and all commercial or non-commercial purposes to the extent permitted by applicable law.”

OK, so Sermo DOES explain its business plan in its Terms of Use.

I question whether this is ENOUGH, considering that most everyone ignores these documents written in legalese — a language that repulses many of us ordinary folk, including doctors!

Instead, owners and operators of online discussion sites — whether they be independent corporations such as Sermo, or hospitals, other healthcare organizations, and even pharmaceutical companies (someday) — should publish SOCIAL MEDIA POLICIES that are separate and different from their Terms of Use agreements.

A Social Media Policy is not just an agreement that users must abide by. More importantly, it is a PROMISE to users from site owners/sponsors concerning how they will protect or attempt to protect user-generated content, personal conversations, interactions, and engagements with third-parties on the site. The policy should also explain how users should “behave” on the site (eg, “rules of engagement”).

Fair Social Media Practice Principles
It used to be that privacy policies were written in legalese incorporated into terms of use agreements. Even when separate privacy policies were developed, they varied from site to site owned and run by the same organization. After government (ie, FTC) privacy policy guidelines and laws were enacted, privacy policies were required to comply with standard fair information practice principles that make certain promises about protecting a user’s privacy (see, for example, “Pharmaceutical Compliance with Fair Information Practice Principles“). Privacy policies also have become much easier to read and understand.

The same should be true of the social media policies I am talking about. I hope, however, this is done on a voluntary basis by the industry rather than by new laws.

Therefore, in summary, I propose that owners and operators of online discussion sites — whether they be independent corporations such as Sermo, or hospitals, other healthcare organizations, and even pharmaceutical companies (someday) — publish SOCIAL MEDIA POLICIES that comply with as-yet-to-be-determined “fair social media practice principles.”

But what are the essential elements of “Fair Social Media Practice Principles?”

That’s the question I plan to address at a June 22, 2011 workshop in Paris at the Doctor’s 2.0 & You conference. Find my workshop on the agenda here.

Some ideas for essential social media good practice principles include:

  • A comment moderation policy that explains how discussions are reviewed before or after publication
  • Qualifications for discussion moderators, if there are moderators
  • How site moderators are trained regarding policies
  • Rules for participation in discussions by site owner employees
  • Rules for participation by third-party sponsors, clients or their agents
  • How “misinformation” is defined and what the policy is for correcting such information

Further Thoughs
Comment from Reader: I think there should be some sort of regulation mandating that social networking websites explain in plain English how and why their clients’ information will be used.

Response by JM: SM sites definitely should have a privacy policies that cover that. Under FTC regulations, these policies are promises to customers and if sa ite owner violates the policy they can be prosecuted under FTC law.

But what I would like to see is a promise from SM site owners about other issues such as how they moderate discussions and correct misinformation or re-use content posted by users.

Health-related SM sites can be rife with misinformation and become dangerous. I’m not in favor of “correcting” misinformation by deleting it without permission from the poster. Who determines if the information is wrong. I’m in favor of a policy that says the site moderators can post “corrections” to misinformation just like anyone else can. But leave the original information on the site.

Another variation of the policy could be to delete the “misinformation” with permission from the original poster with a note as to why the information was deleted and with whose permission.

There are all kinds of other situations that arise in online communities that require policies to deal with in a well-mannered way. The Sermo case is an example — who can copy posts and mine the site? What rights do the original posters have regarding the “content” they create on the site? Do the site owners ask permission to use this content for any reason whatsoever or are there limitations? That should be part of the policy too.

In this way, SM site owners promise how they will maintain and use the content provided by users — even content that is non-identifiable as to the poster. Privacy only becomes an issue on sites that require users to provide personal information when signing on but allow them to be anonymous on the site. Many sites operate this way. They are obliged to protect & keep private the personal information you provide but usually not the content you post in open forums.

You may think it is obvious that content you post in forums is NOT private, but I guarantee many people do not realize this. Or they do not realize how the site’s tools allow the content to be shared over other networks. Shouldn’t users be made more aware of that? I for one am a bit confused about how all these social networks are tied together — I can log in to different sites and content I publish on Twitter can end up somewhere I don’t expect.

What do you think? Give us your input on  this by responding to the Rules for Pharma Engagement in Patient/Physician Social Networks survey.

[This article originally appeared in Pharma Marketing Blog. Make sure you are reading the source to get the latest comments.]

Issue: Vol. 10, No. 11
Publication date: 21 June 2011
Word Count: n/a

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